OneWeb slashes size of future satellite constellation

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WASHINGTON — OneWeb says it’s drastically reducing the size of a proposed next-generation satellite constellation originally envisioned to have nearly 48,000 satellites.

In a Jan. 12 filing with the Federal Communications Commission, OneWeb sought permission to amend an application filed in May requesting to launch 47,844 satellites for its “Phase Two” constellation. Instead, the company is proposing a system with 6,372 satellites.

The revised constellation, OneWeb said in a Jan. 13 statement, “demonstrates the commitment and vision” of its new owners, the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global, for “deploying a cost effective, responsible, and groundbreaking satellite network to deliver global broadband.”

The original Phase Two proposal filed with the FCC envisioned a system with 32 planes of 720 satellites each at an inclination of 40 degrees, 32 planes with 720 satellites each at an inclination of 55 degrees, and 36 planes with 49 satellites each at an inclination of 87.9 degrees, for a total of 47,844 satellites, all in orbits 1,200 kilometers high. Those would be in addition to its initial constellation of about 650 satellites the company is currently deploying, which is not affected by the proposed modification.

The revised system retains the same number and arrangement of orbital planes, but reduces the number of satellites in each of the 40-degree and 55-degree planes from 720 to 72. The satellites in the 87.9-degree orbital planes are unchanged, reducing the total size of the system to 6,372 satellites.

“OneWeb expects this revised deployment plan for its Phase 2 constellation will enable it to achieve superior end user throughput and spectral efficiency while reducing funding requirements and fostering OneWeb’s ‘Responsible Space’ vision,” the company said in its FCC filing. “This Amendment is an integral part of OneWeb’s commitment to support the long-term use of space for all by preserving the orbital environment.”

Despite reducing the size of the constellation by more than 85%, OneWeb asked the FCC to consider the amendment “minor” under its rules for assessing priority for various applications. The company said it is making no other changes, like frequency allocations, for the system, so “this proposed reduction in satellites will not increase the potential interference” for other systems.

It’s not clear how serious OneWeb was in its original proposal for launching nearly 48,000 satellites. The company filed the application when it was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and had suspended deployment of its first-generation system. That deployment resumed in December, after the company emerged from Chapter 11 under its new ownership.

The size of the system, larger than any other constellation proposed, alarmed some in the space sustainability field because of the heightened risk of orbital debris. Astronomers were also worried that the satellites would pose an even greater risk to their observations than SpaceX’s Starlink system.

“It is clear that a huge constellation of 50,000 satellites at high altitude is the most threatening to visible astronomy,” said Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, during a July conference session on the effect of satellite megaconstellations on astronomy.